Easter Sunday 2022: The Gospel of Mary
Today is Easter Sunday! Come on! Let's do that chant that we do just to get even more hyped... Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! That's about as hyped as most Presbyterians get in worship unless we're talking about forming committees.
If you've ever wondered why we say that particular phrase, I'm going to tell you the origin story of it today, along with the origin of Easter Eggs, and a whole bunch of other surprising things...
Like Jesus being raised from the dead, isn't surprising enough, right? We've heard the story before, haven't we? Probably a hundred or more times for most of us of a certain age.
But it's a story that bears repeating because it's our story, in the end.
Once a few years ago, a wiseacre pastor friend of mine and I were having coffee in the middle of Holy Week. "Hey man," my friend queried, "what are you preaching on this coming Sunday?"
He was joking of course, so I responded, "I think this Easter I'm going to preach on tithing because I'll actually have a full house! Gotta take advantage when you can!"
All joking aside, sometimes you just need to tell the story. And sometimes when you do tell the story, you find surprises.
Today we're going to focus on a surprising figure in John's account of the Resurrection: Mary Magdalene---the first of Jesus' followers to see him after he walked out of the Tomb.
Speaking of walking out of the Tomb... There was a time in my life when I thought this story was just too impossible to believe. In fact, that little nugget of doubt landed on me while I was driving to church and practicing my sermon, early one Easter Sunday morning.
I remember thinking to myself out loud, "I don't know if I believe any of this."
It was a rough moment, to be sure. But in the end, I came to grips with my doubts and discovered a faith that was stronger, and more expansive than I'd ever known before.
One of the many things that helped me was when I began asking myself, "Do you really want to live in a world where the impossible isn't possible? Where there are no miracles? Not by a long shot!"
Besides, who wants to think that Resurrection is just for other people? You know, holy people, the kind of people who don't seem to do anything wrong, or cuss, say or do hurtful things to others, make poor decisions, mess up... You know, those people.
Here's a secret... Those people don't exist. We're all in the same boat by degrees, really. And that's why my main point today, which is bolstered by the story of Mary Magdalene herself is so crucial for all of us:
WHEN IT COMES TO RESURRECTION, GOD IS AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYER.
And now let's read the story...
1 Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. 2 So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don’t know where they have put him!”
3 So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. 4 Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came along behind him and went straight into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, 7 as well as the cloth that had been wrapped around Jesus’ head. The cloth was still lying in its place, separate from the linen. 8 Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. 9 (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.) 10 Then the disciples went back to where they were staying.
11 Now Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb 12 and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.
13 They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” 14 At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.
15 He asked her, “Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?”
Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.”
16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.”
She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means “Teacher”).
17 Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
18 Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
Have you ever wondered why Mary Magdalene had the first post-resurrection encounter with Jesus in John's Gospel? What made her so special that Jesus withheld appearing to the disciples who ran to see the empty tomb, and to the others who were still gathered in the Upper Room?
Let's take a look at Mary's origin story---what we know about her from Scripture, and then we'll talk a bit about how she's treated in Church tradition.
First, we know where Mary was from because of her name. She was from the village of Magdala, which is on the shores of the Sea of Galilee not far from all of the other villages where Jesus ministered.
Images of Magdala
Scripture teaches that she was afflicted with seven demons, which means that she underwent seven different healings by Jesus. It's not a coincidence that seven is the number of completion.
It's believed that she was a wealthy woman, but it's not clear how she had money. But she was one of the followers of Jesus and part of a cadre of women who supported him and the disciples financially.
One scholar I read called her "An Apostle to the Apostles."
She is mentioned 12 times in the Gospels, which is more than any other disciple other than Peter, James, and John.
In 591, Pope Gregory I erroneously declared that Mary was a prostitute when he conflated her with Mary of Bethany and the unnamed woman in Luke's Gospel who anointed Jesus' feet.
That claim was finally refuted by Pope Paul VI in 1969, but the damage was done. It's still a cultural belief that persists today, though it has no basis in Scripture, nor does it have a basis in church tradition other than Pope Gregory's misstep.
She was also a central figure in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, scores of extra-canonical Gospels and writings that were authoritative for many different Christian communities in the 1st and 2nd centuries.
Mary Magdalene is a central figure in later Gnostic Christian writings, including The Dialogue of the Savior, the Pistis Sophia, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Mary. These texts portray Mary Magdalene as an apostle, as Jesus's closest and most beloved disciple, and the only one who truly understood his teachings.
The Gospel of Mary is the one that is not only named for her but also tells more of her interaction with the Apostles after Jesus' Resurrection when she relates the teachings that Jesus gave her.
In The Gospel of Mary, Mary Magdalene tried to tell the Apostles that the mission needed to be focused solely on Jesus' teachings with no additions, extra rules, regulations, etc.
There was resistance from two of the Apostles, Peter, and Andrew, who were incensed that Jesus would entrust such authority to a woman. The other disciples came to her defense, however, and we get this line from the text:
"But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well.”
She experiences the Resurrection first---Jesus calls her by name and she knows.
Church tradition teaches that Mary eventually presented herself to Tiberius Caesar to explain to him the meaning of the Resurrection. She brought an egg with her, as eggs were symbols of the Resurrection for early Christians.
As she sought to explain, she declared "Christ is Risen!" The Emperor mocked her for carrying an egg and said that Jesus had no more risen from the dead than the egg she was holding could turn red.
Incidentally, according to Church tradition, Mary Magdalene was the first to use those words in the way that we use them now---Christ is Risen!
At that moment, the egg suddenly changed color from white to red, causing the Emperor to listen more closely to her story, especially the part about how Pilate was complicit in his execution.
And this is where the whole egg decorating thing came from--the symbol of the egg was already widely used, but after this story was told and retold they began to be decorated until they were elaborate and Faberge came along.
Tiberius would eventually recall Pilate, and it is believed he was executed.
Image of Mary by Janet McKenzie
So why am I teaching all of this? Why does it matter? What's so important about Mary Magdalene's experience with Jesus and her status with the disciples?
Mary stands in for the rest of us... the ones who aren't Apostles... the ones who don't feel worthy... but whom Jesus makes worthy. Because Jesus knows us... knows our name... in all of our brokenness, and disbelief.
Do you want to know what the most impossible thing about the Resurrection really is? That it's for all of us. For the ones who believe they are worthy, and for those who don't.
And when we see the signs of Resurrection within us, all around us, and through us, like Mary our regrets become realization... realization that we are loved, cherished, named, and known.
Our longing turns to love... love for God and one another.
Our weakness becomes strength---strength that can only come through experiencing and embracing grace, love, and mercy.
Death gives way to life--new life, the kind that finds a way despite all of the odds against it, and a world that downplays the miraculous and the Impossible.
And when we see the signs of Resurrection... the impossible is made possible. Even you and I can become witnesses, faith-bearers, and storytellers of the great big story of how God saved and is saving the world, one resurrection at a time.
Just like Mary...
Because when it comes to Resurrection, God is an equal opportunity employer.